A Marriage of Conquest

Today I read this disturbing call to marriage (Hat Tip Hip And Thigh). Elysse Barrett writes from and to my “Christian, conservative, homeschooling” circle and, in my judgment, accurately represents our subculture’s gestalt–both its behavior and its self-criticism.

The priority behind this essay, and much of the talk in my crowd, is the (re)establishment and preservation of culture, worked out through a Biblical context. Note that sequence: first, there is a problem with the world around us; second, how do we fix it? But what we ought to have is an understanding of the work of Christ in the world, and then a determination to cooperate in it.

There are lots of people claiming to represent me, the decent everyman, with lots of different programs for change. Most are too far out to require comment. But this niche is so close to home that I could not fault someone for thinking that I did agree with it; as I do not, it is worth explaining why.

We need first of all to revisit what it means to have a “Biblical context.” This catchphrase usually signals correctness and validity. For me to say that this cultural program has a Biblical context and then to disagree with it would seem to be self-condemnation. There is no denying that people in the conservative Christian crowd have a Biblical context, as allusion to Biblical stories and direct quotation of verses amply demonstrates. But knowing what is in the Bible is far different from understanding why it is there. Barrett’s handling of scriptural reference is presumptuous–not only does she make assumptions about the case to support her context, she gives no indication that she is aware of making assumptions.

Take for example Barret’s statement that “God rewarded those who sought marriage actively (ie – Isaac, Ruth, etc.)” This is assuming that the blessing of God was because these people sought to get married, and further asserting that the same situation is equally available to us. Clearly Isaac and Ruth both married; let us not dispute that they were blessed. But were they blessed because they sought out marriage? That is a huge leap.

If we say that marriage is the gateway to God’s blessing, what can we say about Ezekiel and the death of his wife? Or what do we say about Hosea, who married an unrepentant prostitute? Or what do we say about David? We know that he married wrongly, taking several wives and committing adultery, but he is also the famous psalmist, the man after God’s own heart, and surely he was blessed at least as much as Isaac and Ruth, was he not?

What even should we say about Esther? She married, and her marriage was certainly the means of great blessing upon her people. But do we want to point our daughters after her model? To marry with no spiritual unity, without even a relationship–to be married to a powerful man because of physical attractiveness, and then with food, wine, and beauty to manipulate the man in power? Is that the model our daughters should follow?

Now who were the sons of Isaac, the marriage-seeker? Were they not Jacob and Esau? Are these feuding sons the blessings we are to expect from pursuing marriage? Is the wife who works to confound her husband’s purposes and defraud her own son the blessing we should be pursuing?

Also upsetting is Barrett’s assertion that “the reality is that the science of love and romance starts with facts and statistics.” While I am sure Barrett and I would both say that nothing in life should be done apart from prayer–from a spiritual listening to God–there are certainly problems that we approach more mechanically, such as building airplanes, and problems that we approach more philosophically, such as where we will live and what kind of work we will pursue. These questions begin as a choice of values before they require practical actions. And it seems that Barrett classifies marriage as a question of engineering; that we should do it is a given; there is only a mere question of how.

Marriage is perhaps the only life-long commitment we make voluntarily. We are pledging ourselves to one person in a very like manner that we pledge ourselves to God after we become aware of his redeeming love for us. Bought and wholly owned by God, in marriage we are sub-letting our contract with him; this is not a question of whether it is good (in a neutral sense) for people (in an unrestricted sense) to get married, but whether it is in line with the master’s particularly assigned work for this servant to marry that servant. Taking that statement carefully, it is neither for nor against marriage–that is determined only as an outcome of the decision of the master.

With one casual reference to “be fruitful and multiply,” Barrett assumes that it is God’s will for all of his servants to get married unless a particular exception is handed down as a special circumstance. I have heard others just as easily assume that multiplying contains an implicit but obvious qualification that we ought to stop multiplying when we run out of room. I disagree with both self-assured interpretations, but neither is more necessarily invalid in the way it is constructed; both merely assume.

You may think from the direction I have gone thus far that I hyper-spiritualize marriage as a cosmic union between two uniquely designed eternal soul mates. But no. In the longest New Testament writing on marriage, Paul shows that in the last analysis, marriage is an external state, and like all external states it exercises no mystical, spiritual bondage over us. If you read through 1 Corinthians 7, Paul begins by talking about marriage and ends by talking about marriage, and in the middle he quite comfortably makes some parallel comparisons with bondservice. What he says about marriage in verses 12 – 16 is very close to what he says about the rest of our external obligations in 18 – 24. And clearly the rule for both is ‘stay as you are called.

One must work quite hard at this to turn it into a program for cultural revolution. Barrett makes the bizarre statement “I’m not willing to see a multi-generational vision die with mine, and I don’t think the Lord is either.” It is hard to know exactly what Barrett means by a multi-generational vision from this essay, so I may do her an injustice with my representation; but I would hazard that it has something to do with having children, encouraging and conditioning them to have children–perhaps going right up to the edge of what we would call arranging marriages–and emphasizing to your children their responsibility to raise their own children up in the same pattern. Thus, by reproduction, filling the culture with right-minded people.

But a review of the Bible will show an absolute dearth of this very thing. Adam’s children, Noah’s children, Abraham’s children, Jacob’s children, Aaron’s children, Eli’s children, Samuel’s children, David’s children, and nearly all of the sons of the kings of Israel form a stunning example of godless sons following godly fathers. Indeed the great irony of the Bible is that the pure and faithful Bridegroom, Jesus, comes from such a famously debauched lineage. Yes, God has a multi-generational vision, but it is wondrously arrogant to presume that we for our part are so much holier than all these men that we can build godly generations by our visionary planning! The way God accomplishes his multi-generational plan is, historically, not at all what we would envision for our families.

This by no means contradicts that we ought to make every effort to raise God-fearing children. But someone who is going to make their case from an “historical and Biblical perspective” ought to pay a lot more attention to what the history recorded in the Bible shows. Saying that lots of people in the Bible and in history got married is a trifle too obvious–our existence makes the case–and really adds nothing to the question of what we are to do ourselves.

I fully agree with Barrett that singleness is not more holy than marriage (although I cannot say I have seen that attitude going around from my corner of Christiandom). Paul is at pains to make certain nobody understands him as saying that marriage is sinful. But I also see him making every effort to dispel precisely the attitude that Barrett advocates of presuming upon marriage–of seeking marriage as a default state.

To avoid too much presumption of my own, let me duly acknowledge the theory that Paul’s perspective in Ephesians was limited to a local event, “because of the present crisis.” I understand this as a remark on this entire age from the writing until the end, in line with Paul’s conclusion that “this world in its present form is passing away.”

Let us for the sake of argument say that Paul did actually mean a local, historical distress. Our present culture’s near future is not bright itself, by all lights; or at any rate by all lights that I have heard in this circle of Christianity. There are two contrary streams running through this valley, and some seem to drink from both: that a cultural revolution is just around the corner, when homeschoolers hit their third or fourth generation; and that a terrible persecution is right around the bend. Now Barrett may not hold the second view at all, but given how pervasive it is within our circle, she ought to at least treat with it when she is advocating prolific family-making with a long view. If restraints on family-founding are indeed temporary, are they not for times as these?

As I understand Paul’s advice to not be limited to his own time, let me repeat again that neither in Paul nor anywhere else in the New Testament do I see marriage prohibited nor described as second-tier holiness. Reading and contemplating the entire seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians will show that marriage is an external and secondary thing, neither necessarily bad nor necessarily good. But Barrett’s pragmatic arguments about making sure the vision lives on ought to have less force than Paul’s own advice (7:7, 8, 17, 24, 25, 26, 32, 35, 38, 40). What–did Paul not have a multi-generational vision?

I have heard before a phrase or two about Joshua–“Joshua Revolution,” “Joshua Generation,” something like that. I do not know whether this comes from the multi-generational vision camp or not. But it is ironic to me all the same that Joshua was not the son of Moses, nor do we hear anything noteworthy about Joshua’s sons. Nor was Timothy Paul’s son; nor do we hear about the children of any of the apostles.

Truly I cannot find any sound support for the culture-based or family-based gospel that so many today preach. They say that God works in families; I do not find it. They say that families are his covenant unit; I do not find it. I have not by any means addressed all the evidence or argument that is made out for cultural Christianity, but it seems from my survey of “almost every great person in the Bible” (Barrett’s phrase), which I sketched above, that the burden of proof must lie with them.

To be sure, there are a great many promises made in the Old Testament concerning sons and descendants and so forth. It is not for want of sparkling promises that I discount God’s blessing being bestowed on families. It is what the Biblical record actually shows happening that so convincingly reinterprets what these blessings really are.

A great deal of the adultery, murder, and fraud recorded in the Bible was committed by ancestors of Jesus, as I indicated before. For all the want of family units of godliness in the Bible, there is abundant evidence that Christ fulfilled the promises made for a Son. For the promise to Eve, to Abraham, to David, and to Isaiah are fulfilled in Christ–and not satisfactorily fulfilled in anyone else. If you read God’s promise to David and then read of Solomon and his sons after him, there is something of the promise fulfilled but a lot of it left wanting.

It may seem too broad to roll up every single family promise in scripture as a reference to Christ, but I submit that it is an excellent way to get started. “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1:20). For it is in him and by him and through him that we number our family. He makes God our father so that we can be blessed sons together with him.

What troubles me about Barrett’s essay is not the prospect of Christians (or anyone) marrying and having children; it is the careless way in which the motivation and justification for marriage is presented as unquestionably Biblical. Toward the end of her piece, Barrett suggests that Satan opposes marriage specifically, writing “Satan fully recognizes the power of two people yoked together towards a common goal, and he’s not about to see that take place on a regular basis.” One gets the impression that it is an act of spiritual warfare, nay, spiritual victory, to lead a fellow Christian to the altar. If Satan is opposing God in all his ways, then when God brings two together for marriage they may indeed face spiritual opposition–but that is not the same thing as making marriage a territorial victory in its own right. The idea is strange to scripture.

But Barrett is on to something when she talks about marriage’s historical importance. There was some concern about this in ancient Rome:

Toward the end of his life, Augustus passed the Papia-Poppaean Law, which supplemented the earlier Julian Laws, to encourage the enforcement of penalties for celibacy and to enrich the Treasury. However, even with this new law, marriages and births did not increase substantially. Childlessness offered too many advantages. [Tacitus, Annals 3.25, quoted in Shelton, As the Romans Did.]

Permit me to emphasize, in case you do not remember clearly, that Augustus was a thoroughly pagan emperor of a thoroughly pagan culture. He died before the birth of Jesus. Loosely speaking, though, when Paul was writing his letters there were moral and social commentators gravely concerned about the rate of births and marriages in the population of the richest nation on earth.

Of course, it wasn’t necessarily that the birth rate of everybody in the nation was down; a lot of the concern was over the birthrate being low among the right kind of people, the fully franchised Roman citizens. How could the conquering Romans stay in control if the infidels were having more babies?